[Traduit par Chiara Lauvergnac, via Migreurop]
Migrants along the Route, permanent quarantine
April 27, 2020
Starting in March, as the coronavirus spread to Europe, some states located along the rear Balkan have implemented agreements that have affected not only the local population, but also and above all the migrant population living inside the transit and asylum seeker centers, set up and set up along the so-called Balkan route from 2016.
After 2015, the year of the “refugee crisis”, which saw almost one million people arrive in the European Union (of which more than 850 thousand passed through Greece), starting from March 2016 the Balkan route was officially declared closed, on the basis of the controversial Turkish-European agreement, which basically provides that Turkey - in exchange for € 6 billion paid by the EU and an acceleration in negotiations related to entry into Europe - handles almost 4 million asylum seekers who we are in its territory.
In fact, however, that agreement (actually a joint declaration between the parties involved) did not stop the flow of people on the move, but really slowed it down and made it more dangerous; it is estimated, in fact, that between 2016 and 2019 around 160 thousand people have passed through this migratory corridor.
The countries mainly affected by the presence of migrants in transit are Greece, Serbia and - starting from 2018 - Bosnia and Herzegovina, that became the bottleneck in the north-western area before entering Croatia and from there the Shengen countries, the destination which people aspire to, who are mainly from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Iran and Iraq.
Shortly before the pandemic took off globally, starting from the end of February, the Balkan Route had returned to the main newspapers and news sites, because Turkish President Recep Tayyp Erdogan announced he had opened the borders to migrants willing to reach Europe. What seemed only a threat became reality; within a few days at least 10,000 people reached the land border between Turkey and Greece and tried to push through the security cordons, finding a violent response, also with the support of the police and military personnel from other EU countries.
The incandescent situation on the border, which showed a scenario similar to that of 2015, with thousands of people in transit along the route, however, was abruptly interrupted with the arrival of the virus and the measures of closure of movement and the self-isolation put into practice by almost all states of the world.
The states located along the Balkan route have not only imposed restrictive measures on the local population, but have closed the migrant population inside the camps, deploying special forces to control their perimeters: no new person enters and no one excludes, in a permanent quarantine.
They take the road in the woods
In Greece there are an estimated 118,000 refugees and asylum seekers; about 20 thousand inhabitants in the 30 camps located on the continent, many residents in apartments or shelters and over 38 thousand are blocked in the official and informal camps on the islands of Lesvos, Chios, Samos and Kos.
In Serbia there are over 8,500 asylum seekers and migrants distributed in the 17 government-run centers within the country. During the month of March the police and army brought the people who lived in the squat on the outskirts of Belgrade and Šid into the camps, which are now overcrowded.
Finally, it is estimated that in Bosnia and Herzegovina there are about 5,500 people housed in 9 camps for reception, but that at least 2,000 live sleeping in abandoned buildings and factories or in makeshift tents and camps in the woods along the borders with Croatia. On April 17, the Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina decided that every foreigner who does not have a valid identity document and a residence address registered at the foreign office of the municipality of competence, will be obligatorily taken to the reception centers, where he must reside without possibility to go out. For this reason, work has already started in the past weeks, in Lipa, in the canton of Una Sana, in the Bihac area, to set up a new temporary transit centre. The camp, consisting of large tents with bunk beds, sanitary containers and chemical toilets, was fortuitously desired by the municipality of Bihac to move the thousands of people who wander through streets and ruined buildings without food, running water, electricity and clothes. Transportation of migrants, escorted by local police, to the new centre managed by the the World Organization for Migrants and the Danish Refugee Council began peacefully from the morning of April 21. At the same time, dozens of people who do not want to live in the centres and remain stuck in quarantine indefinitely, have decided to take the road through the woods and try to go to Croatia or stay in the forests, waiting for anti-Covid measures to loosen in the various countries.
The concerns raised by the various non-governmental organizations and associations in all the contexts mentioned are the same: thecamps are overcrowded and do not allow to prevent the spread of the infection, in many centers the toilets and health facilities are insufficient, in some situations the water is not drinkable and basically it is impossible to keep your distance. People spend their days locked in structures in most cases dilapidated, forced to wait in long lines to receive meals and under the control of the police and the army (as in Serbia and Greece), which prevent attempts to flee the camps, or private surveillance companies in the camps in Bosnia ( managed by IOM, unlike Serbia and Greece, where they are under government management).
Of course, if it is already difficult for the local population to find disposable masks and gloves, for migrants in the camps it is almost impossible, to the point that both in Greece and Serbia, in some of the centers the migrants have begun to sew masks in cloth , for the population of the campss but also for the local population, supported by some organizations.
In all camps, organizations that do not deal with primary services, but for example with psycho-social interventions such as IPSIA/Caritas, have had to suspend or modify their activities and establish a rotating staff working mode, to preserve their operators.
Although cases of positive Covid19 people among migrants in the centers have not been officially recognized in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, the same cannot be said of Greece, where at least three outbreaks have erupted, the first in Ritsona, a former military base 70 kilometers from Athens, which houses over 3,000 people, the second in the Malakasa camp, where a positive case was found among the more than 1,600 residents, the third in southern Greece, in Kranidi, where 150 out of 497 people from a hostel hosting single parent families tested positive. In all cases the camps were placed in total isolation and quarantined for 14 days, and people are not allowed to leave their containers, rooms or tents. To prevent the phenomenon from exploding especially in contexts such as the islands, where the camps are overcrowded and the living conditions most miserable, the Greek government has disposed the movement of at least 2,300 people considered most vulnerable to the virus on the mainland, in apartments, hotels and other camps.
In general, the reactions of migrants to the measures that have been put in place have been similar in all places. First of all, there is the sincere concern of getting sick in the camps; people are aware that hygiene and social distancing measures are impossible to maintain. For example, the Bira, a camp in Bosnia and Herzegovina for single men and unaccompanied minors, which has an official capacity of 1,500 people, is home to more than 1,800 and not just 6 people live in one container, but at least twice as many. In places like this it is physically impossible to put in place all the necessary procedures to avoid contagion.
Another point that is particularly frustrating, especially in the camps in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, is the impossibility of physically leaving the centers. This means not being able to exercise any freedom of movement, not being able to go and buy goods and food, perhaps not necessary for survival, but of help to resist psychologically. It means not being able to go and collect the money that relatives send via Western Union and Money gram and obviously means not being able to try the game, the “game” to go on foot, alone or guided by traffickers, to the borders, to try to cross them.
The Caritas and Ipsia interventions
The frustration of getting stuck indefinitely is very high; in many of the camps brawls sometimes even very violent broke out, among the migrants themselves but also with the police and security forces in charge of the control of the centers. These incidents in Bosnia and Herzegovina occurred among unaccompanied minors from the Bira camp, in Velika Kladuša’s Miral, in Blažuj near Sarajevo. Same dynamics, with consequent heavy security intervention, in Krnja? A, Preševo and Adaševci in Serbia.
Organizations engaged in migrant centers may have an important stress-relief role (support in situations of psychological pressure) in a context of such widespread frustrations and violence, but the organizations that manage the camps and local governments prefer an almost closed closure total, without understanding that it would be important to prevent the growth of further tensions.
Caritas and Ipsia Acli, partners of projects along the Balkan route since 2016, continue - as far as possible - their activities in Greece, Serbia and Bosnia. Local operators are spokespersons and witnesses to people’s needs; even though, following the health emergency, the young men and women in the Civil Service abroad had to return to their homeland in order not to get stuck, and this took away local forces and energies. The operators on the ground continue to support the migrant population along the Route. A small contribution, in a sea of needs, but the sign of attention and proximity that must not be erased by the virus.
Caritas Italiana - Migranti lungo la Rotta, quarantena permanente